I was enjoying a socially distanced walk with a friend today and we began to reminisce about cosy pubs and welcoming restaurants. At the moment, the weather is bitter – the Beast From The Baltic is battering us on the east side of England – yet pandemic rules keep us from mingling. Understandable, of course, but none the less bloody annoying. And it is inevitable that when, finally, enough normality returns to allow us inside, there will be fewer insides than before. It wasn’t the plan of the lockdown, to decimate the hospitality industry, but it will, one way or another.
And thinking about that, took me back to 1989 and another unintended consequence of changes to the hospitality industry, in that case the pub, that changed the face of Britain’s towns and villages, much like this pandemic will rewrite the face of Britain’s high streets.
Dad loved a pint. Bitter not lager. What we today know as real or cask ale not what I grew up understanding to be pisswater, aka keg beer. For a full explanation of the difference, click here. Just know that, back in the 60s and 70s keg was a dirty dirty word when applied to beer.
Post WW2 the already huge brewery companies consolidated even more, retaining massive pub estates which were ‘tied’. That meant that the only beer, and indeed pretty much all drinks and food that the publican could sell were dictated by the Brewery – most especially the beer and all other alcoholic drinks. It was a captive market. Breweries wanted these monopolies to continue; they hardly ever sold a pub and never to a rival.
This urge to control was helped by the fact that the number of pubs was limited by the licensing laws. These had to have on-licences – a permit to sell alcohol for consumption on the premises – and were gold dust. These were granted to the individual that ran the pub but he or she could only get the licence with the brewery’s support.
Licensing the sale and consumption of alcohol, regulating the hours of opening, these were all measures to try and stop excessive alcohol use and abuse.
Hogarth, in 1751, famously painted Beer Street and Gin Lane to represent this debauched side to London, indeed English city, life and these licensing controls were the inevitable culmination of society wanting to effect control and the establishment’s attempts to prevent these scense becoming the norm.
The consequence was that the breweries decided on the type and quality of beer sold. Of course they wanted beer that lasted, was of consistent quality and easy to transport and store – cask ale is still ‘live’ in the barrel, difficult to transport and store and goes off quickly if exposed to the air. Therefore they developed pisswater, sorry keg beer which answered all of the above (erm, when I say ‘quality, that doesn’t connote high quality, just uniform). Dad loathed it but there was little to no choice.
I think one of the earliest jokes I heard to include the ‘f’ word involved keg beer. One brand of this type, a large seller in the 1960s, was from Watneys Brewery called ‘Red Barrel’.
What is the similarity between Red Barrel and making love in a punt?
They’re both f*****g close to water.
There were other horrible and egregious derelictions of duty amongst the large breweries, in their selling of this ‘beer’. They introduced the Party Seven, a huge tin can that held seven pints of beer. You needed a special can opener to let you open the can, and the joke was that, if the can had been shaken, on applying the opener a jet of sticky beer would cover you in a nasty yeasty film. The nadir of my relationship with these dreadful things came at Twickenham, home of English rugby back when the seating was reserved for royalty, the rest of us all standing. As the game finished and everyone pressed for the exits, these cans could be found dotted across the terracing, now with the tops off and filled with second hand beer. If you were unlucky enough to stumble into one of these small pot urinals, it was inevitable your footwear would now be filled with pisswater, now living up to its nickname. All seater stadiums have their pluses…
Back to the beer, a protest group, probably one of the first if not the first consumer protest group, emerged during the 1960s. The Campaign for Real Ale or CAMRA as it became known.
Through the seventies and into the 80s Camra pursued a dogged rearguard to try and force the return of more and more cask conditioned or real ale. What today are called micro breweries began to emerge. But everything was still small scale.
You see the unintended consequence of trying to control a national descent into alcoholism – the licensing laws – created a tight constrained market and the conditions for an oligopoly of six enormous brewers/pub owners – Courage, Grand Metropolitan, Whitbread, Allied, Bass and Scottish and Newcastle. And that led to the consumers being ignored.
Each brewer owned thousands of pubs; they rarely sold of even closed them (because that meant a lost licence). Cross-subsidies kept unprofitable pubs trading and Britain became famous for its cosy country pubs – every town, every village having a disproportionate number – but at a price.
It couldn’t continue and it required a brash Australian and a dogmatic hater of vested interests to end this state of affairs. John Elliott, the man behind the global rise of Fosters lager through his company Elders IXL and Margaret Thatcher made strange bedfellows. They had very different motivations – a desire for self aggrandisement and profit on the side of Elliott and a distrust of embedded power elites and monopolistic business practices in the case of Thatcher (she didn’t just bash the Unions). She introduced the Beer Orders in 1989 under which the tie between the brewer and the pub was fundamentally undermined; he created the first bespoke Pub owning company (jointly with Grand Metropolitan, called Inntrepreneur Estates) that decoupled the property value from the value of the beer tie (thus ending the cross subsidies in his group, Courage and that of Grand Metropolitan’s estate, between them owners of some 13,000 pubs).
Every pub owned by a large group had to sell a cask conditioned beer and have a guest beer if the tie was retained and only 2000 pubs could be tied anyway. As we entered the 1990s the Berlin Wall fell and the Euro project began, but the most visible impact, here in the UK, of the changes wrought in 1989 was the demise of a multitude of British pubs. Cross subsidies no longer made sense and the unprofitable inns were sold off to these new pub owning companies. It was another unintended consequence and one that changed the face of many towns and villages fundamentally.
When I moved to Herne Hill in 1985 the Camra pressure was beginning to tell in London. One early exploiter of this pressure was Dave Bruce, a brewing entrepreneur with a passion for good beer. In the 1970s he began his own brewery – Bruce’s Brewery – to brew cask ale and started to buy up tatty pubs in South and West London that even the resistant brewers didn’t want to keep. He launched his Firkin brand of ales, many of which were brewed in situ (thus avoiding the transportation issues) . His pubs, which had a spit and sawdust olde worlde charm, proved extremely popular. They became the model for micro-breweries today. Each one was called the Something and Firkin – Goose, Flounder etc. The one above Denmark Hill station where I caught the train every day was the Phoenix and Firkin (an appropriate name this since the pub was housed in the rebuilt ticket hall that had burnt down). There was a super strength beer deliciously called Dogbolter – believe me this was not a session drink. Best of all the bar staff wore T shirts with the best branded slogan I’ve seen:
Phoenix my pint I’ll Firkin thump him
We have moved on from Red Barrel in oh so many ways. Dad would have mourned the loss of some pubs but would have loved the microbrewery and all that comes with it. Once again that great British invention, the pint of ale is something of which even a teetotaller like me can be proud. Just don’t ask me to drink it.